What story is important enough for you to break off a part of your body to tell it?
This and other contemplations offered by the actor J Jha resound at epic and minimalist scale in Ubuntu Theater Project's The Mahbhrata. In a one-man tour de force that swirls, dips and dives through the legendary Indian poem's 100,000 slokas (200,000 verses, written in Sanskrit and dating back to a time between 400 BC and 400 AD), Jha performs a versatile, virtual dance as if tickled by illusion, truth, fate, deceptions, gods, mythological or historical figures and delightful thrills. It's a physical skirmish not entirely unlike the 18-day dynastic war between the Kauravas and Pandavas that unfurls in The Mahbhrata's 1.8 million words, which would take 12 days of uninterrupted telling and listening to share.
Self-tasked with delivering a condensed narrative determined by the roll of dice, monitored by a digital timer, and aided by visual props including a formidable ancestral family tree, Jha promises to collapse an over view of The Mahbhrata into a 12-minute monologue. Americans, Jha says barely in jest, want "just the good parts" of a story and "want it fast." Of course, this means leaving obvious gaps — handled by Jha with nuanced humor as if the mostly non-Indian audience either knows the full story already or, due to ignorance or disregard for authenticity, won't object to enormous ellipses or his tale's haphazard chronology.
Jha completes the abbreviated synopsis with 2:05 minutes to spare at a Sunday matinee, explaining that the original scribe, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, whose pen began to fray while transcribing the epic for the sage Vysa, broke off his tusk to continue writing without pause. The preposterous tidbit, along with the idea of 12 days spent writing nonstop, is perfect setup for Jha to ask, "Who is to stop me if I arrange it in different order?" He later admits the obvious: "I skipped some parts."
Playwright Geetha Reddy's zipline script has Jha waltzing through a vast cast of characters: the "virgin" mother Kunti, her five sons, the deceitful Pandavas brothers; warrior princess Chitrandaga; princess Draupadi (she's forced to accept a husband, Arjuna, and winds up with five; one of the story's most "inconvenient truths"), along with the requisite gods and saints and more. Capably enacting arrows shot, swords slung, suicide-by-knife, murders, marriages, flirty or ferocious women, furious men and more, Jha wraps himself in saris, releases a golden armor-clad baby in a basket on a river — and engages in a multitude of actions with so many micro transitions or timeline reversals it's best just to lean back, forget tracking who's who, and ride along on his wave.
A deep blue dome of fabric arcs overhead and is sprinkled with green stars or shrouded with heavy gray clouds as if to indicate the cosmos. Karla Hargrave's set design and lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson combine to make good use also of a reflective silver carpet runner used metaphorically as a river or pathway that both lights and divides the space. The audience seated on either side become the battle's opposing flanks, or supportive sideline onlookers united by listening to one story, depending on one's perspective.
Directed with a gentle hand by Ubuntu Artistic Director Michael Socrates Moran, the production rightfully stays out of the way of Jha, a charismatic transgender performer who prefers the pronoun they. Although The Mahbhrata is an enormous mythology, this is clearly Jha's story to tell, and they maximize each word and gesture unflaggingly during the two-hour play.
We are reminded in program notes and by Jha at the play's end that listening to The Mahbhrata makes a person feel more alive. I found that conclusion questionable, especially after learning of the war's 3,306,240 warriors and 2,000 elephants — out of which only 240,165 soldiers and few, if any elephants, survived. Told by Jha that his frequent rolls of the dice are irrelevant and instead choices made by gods, other people, and ourselves are determinants of history and a person's fate, I departed feeling uncertain about the play's ultimate message, or if there must be only one. Regardless of that, authentic, thought-provoking storytelling is valuable — and intensely lively — in the hands of Jha, Reddy, and Ubuntu. Therefore, give honor to the story and storyteller for making us more thoughtful in actions taken or declined, in parts broken off in order to tell ourselves or other people our stories.
Through Dec. 8; $15-45; various times; Ubuntu Theater Project; Flax Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland; 510.646.1126; UbuntuTheaterProject.com